Tuesday, November 11, 2008

[truly goddamn terrifying]

You know sometimes you see something that frightens you so badly you're not even embarassed about the girlish noises you've been making for the last hour 30?

by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza

That's all the intro this film gets because it scared me so fucking bad that I need to just get to it. This is that rare film where no place is secure, no one is safe, and absolutely everything is out to get you. A woman and her camera man are recording segments for a show about the nocturnal work forces in their town and tonight has taken them to a fire house. They're introduced to Manu and Alex, the two fireman who they'll be making the rounds with, they play basketball, see the mess hall, the sleeping quarters...Alex makes it pretty clear that the life of a firefighter is not one of constant heroics. No sooner has their routine of nothingness begun to sink in for the amateur reporter that the alarm finally sounds. Angela and Pablo, reporter and cameraman respectively, ride along to an apartment where an elderly woman was heard screaming; her door is locked and so no one is able to get her out. Manu, Alex, and two cops everyone has a hard time taking seriously bust the door down and find the old woman in a bad way. She is hunched over at the end of the hallway, speaks only in sickening barks, and is covered in blood. When the elder of the two cops tries to put a hand to her, she bites him in the throat. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the subject matter tackled on these pages knows the score; the poor bastards in the four story apartment building don't.

When Manu and rent-a-cop #2 bring their injured quarry downstairs, a couple of sobering reality checks are waiting for them. The first is that the authorities have locked everyone in the building; voices on megaphones assure them that decisions are being made for the best outside and that they should stay put. Next, Alex's body falls three stories and slams face first in the middle of the floor. When Guillem, a medical intern and possibly the landlord, gets the two injured men in stable conditions, Manu and the remaining cop go back upstairs. The old woman has gotten right the hell back up and it takes a gunshot to put her back down. Still don't know what's going on? Well here's a man in a yellow haz-mat to clear the air. Seems there's some kind of infection scare going on and priority one is, you guessed it, containment! So, what does that mean for the 15 people still inside. Well they're just fucked aren't they?

I love zombie films and one of the things that really makes a zombie film for me is when they're I don't know...scary. So many zombie films, in fact I'd go so far as to say most of them, simply think they can exist on nominal horror: i.e. there are zombies, it must be scary. Not so. The success of most zombies films is, admittedly, in the stories they tell, but I call a zombie film great when it scares me. 28 Days Later, scary. Dawn of the Dead, scary. Zombies are endlessly entertaining as the endless blog reel can tell you. As horror writer Jonathan Maberry put it when explaining why the Dawn remake was his favorite zombie film, these films were great because they 'made zombies scary again'. So, what does [rec] bring to the table? Quite frankly the best use of shaky-cam (and unlike the American remake, the film stock is actually the sort favored by local news stations) and the most claustrophobic nightmare ever committed to film. Jaume Balagueró was in the red with me after his laughably boring Darkness, but he's more than redeemed himself here. Just after I'd gotten over the shock of a reality based horror film with believable performances from EVERY actor, then came the horror. Aside about the acting; everyone is great. Everyone who is annoying is annoying in a completely truthful real-world fashion. The eccentric racist, the protective mother, the agitating junior reporter, the monomaniacal cameraman; all people I've encountered before and their behavior is precisely as it would be in this situation. At 89 minutes long, [rec] doesn't have time to fuck around, and it knows it. After the obligatory-yet-reasonable character development scene (SCENE. Singular, take a page J.J. Abrams! We don't care who these people are dating because it has, surprise, surprise, nothing to do with the plot!) we're treated to shock after squeal-inducing shock. Zombies are frightening only when you know you can't get away from them, and writers Balagueró, Plaza, and Luis Berdejo give our heroes less and less ground to feel safe in; for a few blistering minutes they are completely without shelter (the fact that they lose floors of a building when they lose ground reminded me increasingly of It! The Terror From Beyond Space). These guys know how to draw screams as well as any Japanese director of the last 15 years. And like the best Japanese directors, their gore is never obscene; rather it is always well-played and even-handed, if incredibly intense. The production design is flawless; the real apartment interior adds to the truly horrendous nature of the terror. You are never drawn out of the film by some short-coming; in short everything works.

The film is not without it's influences, those two new school runner flicks foremost among them (there's a scene with a little girl that had my head sideways for a few seconds, but it recovered soon after). But where Balagueró and Plaza really leave the ranks of the average and enter the realm of those most gifted of horror craftsmen (Friedkin, Boyle, Carpenter) is the ending. The way they explain zombies is not only wholly original (not that some d grade Italian productions haven't tried it before with horrid results, but boy does that ever not count), but its fascinating given Spain's cultural obsessions. Its also one of the single scariest things I've seen in my life (this combines a number of my greatest fears and they win points for this, even if the last shot, the one that the American remake insists on showing you in all the adverts, is completely uninspired). I'll go no further in the details, but suffice it to say that it's brilliant, and so is [rec].

It couldn’t be clearer that foreign countries know how to make horror movies that make American films look like vomit on a canvas. Funniest to me is that new countries keep emerging from the woodworks with tiny films that show up every American horror film in the year of its release. [rec] has been remade as Quarantine, as those of you who’ve seen the truly stupid advertising campaigns know, and it looks like Let The Right One In is next for a bastardized American clone. Let me first explain that the Swedish film hasn’t even been out a month…usually these things take time. No, so quickly is Hollywood running out of ideas that Matt Reeves, director of this year’s realist Grand Guignol Cloverfield, has already been attached to direct. This is deeply saddening and pathetic and no one knows this better than Tomas Alfredson, the film' director. As he explained to Nyheter, a Swedish film website, "Remakes should be made of movies that aren’t very good, that gives you the chance to fix whatever has gone wrong, “I’m very proud of my movie and think it’s great, but the Americans might be of another opinion. The saddest thing for me would be to see that beautiful story made into something mainstream….if you’d spent years on painting a picture, you’d hate to hear buzz about a copy even before your version…Why can’t you just read the subtitles…?” Too right. [rec] didn't need to be retold; Let The Right One In shouldn't be retold.

The American remake culture is not, however born out of artistic necessity, but out of artistic poverty. If American studios would hire real minds with real ideas, they wouldn’t need to sink all their money into reproducing, shot for shot in many cases, subtle, cultural-specific fright films. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that The Day The Earth Stood Still, Ju-On, The Omen, or Psycho called out for repairs. Look at the last bout of remakes and you tell me if they were needed: Mirrors, The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous, Shutter, Prom Night, One Missed Call need I go on? My point is if they were arrogant enough to think that The Hills Have Eyes and Dawn of the Dead needed reinterpretation (two of the kinder ones, mind you) then where does it all end? The Thing*? The Exorcist? Alien?

Addendum Addendum
*Remake to hit theatres later this year

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